THOMASVILLE — Adam Starr’s future is in the past.

The 22-year-old Cairo resident’s preference for traditional American music over contemporary sounds landed him a spot in East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music program. He is a member of its prestigious Bluegrass Pride Band.

“I never dreamed I’d be in that band,” said Starr, set to graduate in June. “It’s a professional-level band with professional-level musicians.”

Starr opted for a musical path after beginning his college career as a student-athlete at Albany State University. The former state champion pole vaulter made the jump to bluegrass after deciding the sporting life was not for him.

During an Internet search, Starr, with help from his father, Scott, learned about ETSU and its out-of-state scholarship opportunities. After just one visit to the hilly Johnson City, Tenn., campus, he knew ETSU was the place for him.

ETSU boasts the nation’s only four-year Bluegrass and Country Music program. It offers instruction on bluegrass instruments, performance in a variety of band situations, vocal harmony, music theory, songwriting, instrument building and recording.

Starr was sold on ETSU after meeting program director Raymond Mclain. An assistant at the time, Mclain invited Starr into his home for supper and a jam session with about a ETSU dozen students. This occurred after Starr dropped by the school unannounced to inquire about the program.

“That just shows what kind of person Raymond is,” Starr said. “He and his family have been amazing friends to me. I was hooked immediately.”

Starr closed his ETSU deal by sending an essay and a tape of himself and his uncle playing a few songs to the school. The submission was impressive enough to earn a scholarship.

A guitar was Starr’s instrument of choice when he was 14. Now he plays dobro, using a bluesy style like Cliff Starr, the uncle and accomplished musician he idolizes.

“I grew up listening to bluegrass because Daddy is a fan,” Starr said. “We used to go watch Uncle Cliff play (in a band). (Uncle Cliff) bought me my first guitar, and I would sit across the room and watch his hands so I could copy what he was doing.”

Starr eventually made his way onto the stage with his uncle. By the time he reached the eighth grade, he played well enough to have his own microphone.

In high school, Starr became captivated by the rock-and-roll sound of The Allman Brothers. The echoes of bluegrass proved too strong, however, and he decided to put down his guitar in favor of the dobro.

“I listened to a lot of old records, then I’d show Uncle Cliff what I had learned,” Starr said. “He’d show me what I did wrong.”

Starr hasn’t hit many sour notes since arriving at ETSU. Mclain offered him a spot in the Bluegrass Pride Band two years ago.

“I was blown away,” Starr said. “Of course, I accepted it.”

Originated in 1982, the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band has an international reputation for excellence. It performs numerous times each year at some of music’s most notable venues, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“I found out I was in the band on a Wednesday, and we wound up playing three gigs before I had my first rehearsal,” Starr said.

Some of Starr’s most memorable ETSU performances include sharing a stage with Rhonda Vincent and Tim Stafford. He also played at a private birthday party for 78-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and a breakfast for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

On Saturday, Starr played with the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Va. It was his second performance at the facility that highlights the musical style of the Original Carter Family (A.P Carter, Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter). Many legendary entertainers, including Johnny Cash, performed there.

“Playing there is one of the best things that’s happened to me,” Starr said. “It’s such a special place. Until recently, it still had old bus seats and couches for the people to sit on. I think the fire marshal finally made them put in stadium seats.”

Starr and the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band will make their second appearance in the Thomasville Cultural Center on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Len Robinson booked the group so area bluegrass enthusiasts could hear the group one more time in its current configuration.

“Seldom do you see young guys like that play traditional bluegrass,” Robinson said. “Most of the guys you seem coming up in bluegrass these days lean more to the contemporary sound like Nickel Creek. There is nothing wrong with that, but very few appreciate the pioneers of the traditional sound.

“That’s what attracted me to them.”

Starr will never forget those who blazed the bluegrass trail.

“In some ways, I feel like a lone ranger,” he said. “All my heroes are old traditional guys, and that’s one thing I miss about playing at home. Ralph Stanley, Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe — that’s where my passion lies because that’s what I grew up with.

“That makes it nice to come home and play with people I am familiar with.”

Starr has greatly enjoyed jamming with a younger set, however.

“It’s amazing to play with people at the college,” he said. “Here, it seems everybody plays — even people you meet in the community at the grocery store and the gas station. It seems everybody is a picker or related to Bill Monroe (known as the father of bluegrass).

“It’s been a great honor for me to represent the ETSU program, the Appalachian culture and its heritage.”

n BRIEFLY: The Traditional Sounds, a group led by Cliff Starr, will open Saturday’s show.

Recommended for you